Removing the stigma around breastfeeding has rightly been a worthwhile feminist cause. However, as Cathryn Dagger explains, a dogmatic inflexible view on this issue can lead to a ‘holier than thou’ attitude in which women who find breastfeeding difficult or painful are made to feel incredibly guilty.
When I became pregnant with our daughter I was determined that when she was born I would do everything “by the book” and “how you’re supposed to”. The main promise being that I would breastfeed for six months.
A team of health visitors and midwives ran the parent craft classes I attended at my doctor’s surgery. Room 13 – the area for the classes was their domain and every square inch of the walls was adorned with posters of breasts. Breasts being suckled by beautiful newborns, breasts shown as a cross section so you as the uninitiated mum to be could see where the milk comes from, even breasts out on the beach as a woman posed with her toddler attached to one nipple and her tiny baby to the other. Given the fact that my doctor’s surgery was “a Breast Feeding Centre of Excellence”, it was clear that breast was indeed best and there simply was no other way to feed my baby.
During one class, which was of course was devoted to the topic; the health visitor leading the session declared, “it doesn’t hurt if they are latched on properly”. Right, I thought, I must make sure to latch her on properly. We were given leaflets and booklets showing in step-by-step detail how to latch the baby onto the nipple, and how to position the baby in order to feed properly, which I read and memorized dutifully.
I remember that during this session, one member of the group saying, “excuse me, but what if you can’t breastfeed…?” Silence followed this question. The health visitor looked at this woman, a traitor in our midst, in utter amazement. “There is no medical reason whatsoever, that a woman cannot breastfeed” she said with such an air of authority that I thought – there: that told you. I felt angry with her for daring to bring such doubts to this group. I thought you stupid woman; there is always one who tries to bring people down.
My daughter is 3 months old. Her last breastfeed was at 8 days old.
Why? Short answer: I Hated Breastfeeding.
Of course there was more to it than that. I was unfortunate to tear badly during my final throes of labour, and consequently was prescribed 3 different sets of antibiotics for the healing process. An interesting insight into our health service was that I was given drugs to prevent an infection occurring from having a procedure done in a sterile operating theatre. The other two I was told were to prevent infections and inflammation from actually giving birth. Additionally I was given lactulose to aid my bowel movements.
Nothing was mentioned about any of this affecting my milk, because “medically” it didn’t. What it did do though was make it taste very very nasty and my daughter rejected my breast after 5 days. For the first week of my precious child’s life I fought to feed her. She was hungry all the time; she would latch on and spit my nipple back out, gagging. She would cry and push at me, her little fists forcing my boob away. Then when hunger overtook she would give in, but anybody could see she wasn’t enjoying it, and it was killing me inside.
Where was this wonderful nurturing experience that I had been promised? What happened to having my smiling infant gazing at me adoringly as she guzzled my delicious breast milk?
The other thing that I wasn’t expecting was that it hurt – a lot.
In the hospital I was shown by the midwife how to latch her on properly, according to the rule book, it shouldn’t hurt, so why did it feel like my nipples were being pulled off and my boobs were full of rocks?
Before two days were over, both my nipples were cracked and bleeding. I was gushing milk and I asked about expressing, I was told no way until 6 weeks. Since the colostrum milk comes for the first week or so, I couldn’t relieve the pain by expressing until the “proper” hind milk came in. I tried baths laying on my front and showers with the showerhead pointed directly at my sore and swollen boobs. Every half hour or so I had to go to the bathroom and take my boobs out of my bra and squeeze milk out to get rid of some of the pressure. I was using up to five breast pads an hour and my sheets and clothes were stained with the stuff.
It will get better, I was told by my health care professionals. I showed the midwife how I fed her and she said yes you are latching her on correctly. I asked why she didn’t like it, they said she just needs to get used to it. I said could it be the drugs making it taste nasty, they said actually yes it could.
Ok. So why wasn’t I told this in the hospital? I was really mad. Here I was punishing myself for being a crap mother and failing to do the most natural nurturing thing in the world for my baby – feed her from my body, and it was more likely to be the antibiotics and laxatives that I was taking that was causing one of my problems.
By day 7, I was at the end of it all. Still tired from giving birth, tired from sleepless nights, tired of worrying, I decided to think about bottle feeding. Then came the worst night of my life. My daughter refused to feed. I tried and tried to latch her on but she just screamed and screamed and flailed her little fists against my body. I cried she cried, my husband cried in his frustration at not being able to help and his own utter exhaustion. “This has got to stop” he said “if you can’t even feed her now we’d better get her on the bottle”. He was right and it was the kick up the backside I needed. The last remnants of trying to “do it right” sailed out of the window. I didn’t care anymore, my baby, my sanity and my marriage had to come before the rulebook.
The next morning my husband went out and got the formula, the sterilizer and the bottles were ready. Trouble was I didn’t have a clue what to do next. At my clinic nothing was said about bottle-feeding. As a breastfeeding centre of excellence, the bottle was never mentioned. Consequently I didn’t know what to do with all this equipment. I turned to my family, who had remained supportive throughout my efforts to feed and had never tried to persuade me to give up. My sister had bottle-fed my niece but I realised I never really knew why. I rang her, “please help,” I said. She came over and showed us the ins and outs of sterilizing, making feeds and feeding.
With a lot – and I mean a lot – of apprehension I cradled my daughter ready to give her this strange bottle. She was as usual hungry and who knows what she made of it all, but as soon as the bottle went in her little mouth and the milk started to flow into her tummy, the look that came over her face reduced me to tears. It was pure contentment, she loved it. When she was finished, she burped and sighed, a sight I have come to see five or six times a day since but that first time I saw it I will never forget. There was happiness on her face, she had a full tummy, and it must have been delicious to her after my tainted milk.
Suddenly it was like a light had been switched on, everything was brighter and better. She slept more, she started to smile. So did we. She loved her bottles, she still does. Our little girl is happy, healthy and perfect.
Telling the health visitor was not something I was looking forward to. How ridiculous that I should feel apprehensive about telling a woman I didn’t know how I intended to feed my own child. My midwife was supportive when I told her; she confided in me that she bottle-fed her own two sons. I was surprised at that, but I was beginning to form a theory. What if secretly all women who have had kids know that breastfeeding is not what it is made out to be?
The health visitor’s reaction was as expected. Her face registered no surprise at my defection to the bottle, but she has treated me with a little less consideration since then. Each visit we make to the clinic is the same, there seems to be no personal touch to the service we receive, yes it’s a large clinic and yes they must see hundreds of women a week, but is that enough to excuse forgetting my babies name, her age and the reason for our visits? Personally, I don’t think so. I expected more.
My theory on breastfeeding has gained strength now from speaking to friends and family members, including my own mum. There is no disputing that breast milk is the best milk. Of course it is, it’s natural and has been that way since the dawn of time. Times change though, and the formulas on the market are hopefully as close to what comes out of your boob, as they will ever be. I don’t believe that my baby is suffering from being formula fed. She is so healthy, robust and happy. My conversations with other mums all come out the same; yes they tried, some for a longer time than others. In the end they all said the same thing. They ended up hating breastfeeding.
My sister as it turns out had the exact same problem as me, three years previously. Her milk was turned sour by antibiotics and laxatives. How unbelievable that I didn’t know this. So great is the taboo surrounding women who choose to bottle-feed over breast, that she never felt comfortable confiding in me that she gave up after 3 days. Another friend told me that like me her milk was in abundance, that it was ok and she wasn’t on any drugs, she simply chose not to feed her child after a week. She felt like a milk machine, like a cow she said. Other friends have said that after nine months of watching their diet they wanted to get their lives back, and didn’t want to have to worry about what they ate or drank affecting the taste of their milk. Some like me experienced a number of reasons why they would not breastfeed again. They all said it that it hurt like hell.
I’m not trying to put anyone off breastfeeding; this is a totally personal account, and a totally personal opinion on the subject. I just think that an alternative viewpoint is needed to balance the “official” government / health service view. If someone had said to me during those classes, you know, guess what, you might not be able to breastfeed so don’t beat yourself up about it if that happens because it happens to a lot of us, then I don’t think I would have gone through the agonies I did trying to do it. I just wonder if there are all these women out there who are trying to breastfeed simply because they think they should and that there’s no other way that is acceptable to society? How many women actually breastfeed because they like it? I wanted to be the earth mother, but reality hit me hard in both bosoms. That’s why I can say honestly and truthfully that it was purgatory for the three of us.
I will breastfeed our next child the colostrum, but he or she will also be on the bottle from day one. A telling fact is that I was the only first time mum on my maternity ward, and all the other mums brought formula with them.
Maybe its time to give two sides to the feeding debate, and open up the way for people like me to talk about their breastfeeding disasters without fearing the social consequences.
When looking at the pros and cons of both feeding options, I believe that for me personally, the benefits of the breast were outweighed by being able to feed our child, seeing her smile and knowing that she is content, happy, healthy and not hungry.